The Dissenter Newsletter Is Moving Away From Substack

After a brief hiatus in May, we'll begin our next chapter and expand our journalism



The Dissenter launched in mid-July 2020, a little more than a month before the extradition trial against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

During this time, over 125 readers subscribed and helped fund a newsletter focused on whistleblowers in corporations and government and the obstacles they face.

These readers made it possible to pay CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling to contribute an essay comparing his case to the case against Assange. They also made it possible to hire journalist Mohamed Elmaazi to report on the political case against whistleblower Craig Murray.

I have many more plans for this newsletter, but they will not happen at Substack.

Shadowproof is leaving this platform for Ghost, where we can keep all the revenue from this newsletter and have more funds for journalism.

Subscribers do not have to do anything to keep receiving the premium newsletter.
A warm person at Ghost is already completing the migration of this newsletter away from Substack. As a result, the newsletter will be on a brief hiatus until the end of May.

At Ghost, there will be more control over the design of the site, and the editor that we use when composing and formatting posts will be better than what Substack offers.

We will not have to pay to use our own domain. The migration will also allow Shadowproof to move beyond a negative experience that illustrated how Substack can be resistant to fostering independent journalism.

***

Back in February 2018, when Substack was in its infancy, Hamish McKenzie, a co-founder, sent me a solicitation email to ask if I would start a paid newsletter on their site. I talked with Hamish.

What Hamish outlined did not seem that different from the membership model that Shadowproof and its predecessor Firedoglake used to support journalism. Readers could sign up to give a certain amount per month that was set by writers.

I asked if we could create different tiers for people to sign-up for the paid newsletter and whether a person could give more money if they wanted. This gives people with varying incomes the flexibility to give what they can.

"We can set something up like this, as we've done for (for example) Petition. But it's not available by default. That's just a little bit of custom work we'd do for you," Hamish answered.

I proposed three tiers: a $9 Shadowproof Newsletter membership, a $15 Shadowproof Newsletter Plus membership, and a $25 Shadowproof Sustainer membership. (Note: This was more than two years before The Dissenter Newsletter.)

Hamish pushed back against the suggested tiers saying it needed to be "as uncomplicated as possible."

"The screen is going to be full of complicated options. Four would be a real stretch and less good. But you could theoretically add a special monthly price," Hamish added.

I talked with Hamish over the phone because we wanted to maintain a range of options so we could bring in as many subscribers at various income levels as possible. Hamish was persuaded. 

"They're going to do something a little different with pricing because they want to accommodate some existing members that they're going to transfer to our platform," Hamish told Jairaj Sethi, another co-founder of Substack.

It was Hamish who suggested that each tier have a description indicating what subscribing at that level would fund. Subscribers who paid $9 per month would help keep Shadowproof's website online. Subscribers who paid $15 per month would fund the two primary columns at Shadowproof that cover prisons and whistleblowers. Subscribers who paid $25 per month would allow us to pay freelance journalists to write and report for us.

An annual tier at $350 was set. I believed that was too high, yet I recall Hamish insisted some readers would be willing to overpay for a year subscription.

In 2019, I asked that Substack lower the $9 tier to $5, which they did.

When the Shadowproof newsletter transitioned to The Dissenter Newsletter in July, I paused billing and then was not able to unpause it after publishing my first post. This was the result of a bug that was apparently unique to my account and no other account on Substack.

Each time I was told it would be fixed, another day passed. It took nearly two weeks to resolve and complicated the launch of The Dissenter.

By the end of the year, I recognized that successful newsletters offered an annual premium subscription at a much more reasonable price ($75-100). I was unable to edit my newsletter's subscription plans and contacted Substack to add a tier below the $350 tier because I did not want to lose the handful of subscribers I had at that level.

"At the moment Substack is designed to only support one monthly plan, one annual plan, and a second special annual plan, where supporters can voluntarily pay you more than the monthly/annual rates," a representative with Substack tech support replied.

The representative asked if I had manually created subscription plans, like I did something wrong, and suggested I had stumbled across another "bug" in the Substack system.

I pushed back on the tech support representative's response and recounted the history of Substack helping an independent media outlet tailor their newsletter subscriptions for the best results.

Hamish jumped in to shut me down. "Unfortunately, we just don't offer tiers like that at all. We did do some customization in our very early days as we were getting off the ground, but we're no longer doing that." 

"Of course, we'll understand if this is a deal-breaker for you. There are other options (like Patreon) if you're looking for the multiple tiers route," added Hamish.

It was clear after the Substack co-founder suggested I leave for a competing platform that I was simply unimportant. Since I am not a big enough celebrity with a large enough following, they had no fear of alienating me.

I looked back at the initial pitch to join from Hamish. At the bottom of the email, I noticed Hamish mentioned he wanted Rania Khalek, who co-hosts the "Unauthorized Disclosure" podcast, to start a newsletter with Substack.

As I reflect on my time with Substack, I believe Hamish never wanted me to join and had very little interest in Shadowproof. He wanted to use me to get to Rania's 100,000-plus Twitter followers, which could be converted into quick revenue for Substack.

That is because Substack, at its core, is not built to foster journalism. Instead, it degrades journalism by thriving off the monetization of personalities, especially those who do not need institutional structures to reach a wide audience.

Substack is a top-down operation that offers limited benefits to grassroots-funded media organizations. They select who and what they support and have significant control over how publishers setup and manage their newsletters.

Plus, at any time their desire to keep raising venture capital could mean Substack executives pull the plug on their relationship with you.

***

The move will take somewhere around one-to-two weeks. In the meantime, the publication of posts will be suspended.

After the migration is complete, I intend to feature regular guest contributions. This will hopefully be the beginning of making The Dissenter more of a collaborative newsletter than a newsletter solely curated by one individual.

Thank you to everyone who has subscribed, commented, and shared The Dissenter Newsletter over the past year.  

Be back soon.

Best,
Kevin